9th Massachusetts Infantry at Gettysburg

[In anticipation of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in July 2013, I thought it might be interesting to commence a series of articles, each one devoted to the experiences of a different Massachusetts unit at Gettysburg.]

The monument to the 9th Massachusetts Infantry is located on the north slope of Big Round Top off of South Confederate Ave. It was placed in 1885.

The monument to the 9th Massachusetts Infantry is located on the north slope of Big Round Top off of South Confederate Ave. It was placed in 1885.

During the Battle of Gettysburg, the 9th Massachusetts Infantry was part of the Second Brigade (Sweitzer), First Division (Barnes), of the V Corps (Sykes).

The experience of the Irish 9th Massachusetts at Gettysburg has long been a puzzlement to me. Their monument on Big Round Top carries the following inscription: “During the Battle of Gettysburg the Ninth Regt. was detached from the 2nd Brigade and it held this position on Round Top.” Somewhat consistent with this, the regimental history by Daniel G. Macnamara (a first sergeant in the regiment) specifically describes the 9th Massachusetts being detached on July 2 and proceeding directly to Big Round Top where they allegedly fought Confederate skirmishers that afternoon and evening.

Why is this perplexing? Because it would utterly defy conventional wisdom about the position of Union troops on the Round Tops on July 2. Even casual students of Gettysburg will have heard about the defense of Little Round Top by the famous 20th Maine Infantry. Countless histories and battle maps depict the 20th Maine as holding the left flank of the entire Union army on July 2, a crucial position.

But, if we believe Macnamara, the 20th Maine was not the extreme left. The 9th Massachusetts was out there about 150 yards away on the north slope of Big Round Top. With a massive Confederate onslaught sweeping across the slopes of Big Round Top and pounding the 20th Maine, how could it be that the 9th Massachusetts was not overrun and suffered only minor casualties? And how could it be that they did not come to the aid of the 20th Maine? “There seems to be,” wrote Macnamara in 1899, “a dearth of information by some military writers about Big Round Top at this period of the second day.”[1]

As it turns out, no one suffered more from a dearth of information (or perhaps memory) than Macnamara. The 9th Massachusetts regimental history is simply wrong.

More on that dilemma in a moment. Some background first…

The 9th Massachusetts was among the first three-year regiments organized in Massachusetts. It was the first of two Irish regiments from the Bay State (the other being the 28th Massachusetts). Most of the unit was from Boston, but there were also companies from Salem, Milford and Stoughton. They departed Boston on June 25, 1861. The regiment saw heavy combat during the Peninsular Campaign. They were hotly engaged in a number of battles there, particularly Gaines Mill and Malvern Hill. During the latter battle, their beloved founder and commanding officer Colonel Thomas Cass was mortally wounded. Over the next year of campaigning, the 9th Massachusetts was present for, but played no great part in the Battles of Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.[2]

Col. Patrick R. Guiney (1835-1877)

Col. Patrick R. Guiney (1835-1877)

By the time of Gettysburg, 28 year-old Colonel Patrick Robert Guiney had been in command of the 9th Massachusetts for about a year. Born in County Tipperary, Guiney was brought to New Brunswick around 1840 by his father. His family eventually settled in Maine. He attended Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, (though he did not graduate) then privately studied law and was admitted to the bar in Maine. By the start of the war, he had been practicing law in Boston a few years, had married and had fathered two children–a boy who died in infancy and a girl, Louise Imogen Guiney, who would become a well-known poet.

When the war began, he enlisted in the Irish 9th as a private, but he had a high reputation in the Boston Irish community and was therefore quickly commissioned as a lieutenant colonel. He was referred to as charming, chivalrous, an avid reader and composer of both poetry and prose.[3] He was also a Republican, a supporter of Lincoln and emancipation…rare for an Irish immigrant and something that would cause a bit of friction between him and his men.[4]

At the close of the first day of battle, July 1, the 9th Massachusetts and the rest of the V Corps were about 15 miles to the east of Gettysburg, having just bivouacked in Hanover. They had been marching hard for days. After only a few hours sleep, the call came for the V Corps to rise up shortly after midnight on July 2. Then followed a hard-pressed night march west to Gettysburg by moonlight. They arrived around 5 a.m. on July 2 and paused for a rest along the Hanover Road a few miles behind the Union lines. Here they waited for much of the day as the disposition of things unfolded and the Union command tried to determine where best to deploy the V Corps. By 2 p.m. it was clear enough…they were needed on the left flank.[5]

Before the V Corps moved forward to take up their position along the battle lines, orders came to Colonel Jacob Sweitzer (commanding the brigade to which the 9th Massachusetts belonged) to detach one of his regiments for picket duty. He first selected the 32nd Massachusetts. But Colonel George Prescott of the 32nd Massachusetts asked to be excused from the job. The 32nd Massachusetts was an untried unit. They did not know how to deploy in skirmish order. Sweitzer agreed. “Then send the Ninth,” he said. And so, when the V Corps moved off for the battlefield, they left the 9th Massachusetts behind on the Hanover Road. They were reluctant to part with their brigade, but as it so happened, the 9th Massachusetts was most fortunate in being detached as Sweitzer’s brigade was in for a terrible fight that afternoon.[6]

According to Macnamara, things happened rather differently. Instead of staying behind on the Hanover Road, the 9th Massachusetts plodded directly for Big Round Top, roughly a 4 mile march. There, according to Macnamara, they played a vital role in defending the Union left flank on July 2. Historian Christian Samito, in his introduction to the 2000 re-print of Macnamara’s regimental history, points out that this version of the story is, “the most glaring and inexplicable error in [Macnamara’s] work.”[7]

Inexplicable, indeed. Their actual deployment was far less eventful. The 9th Massachusetts took up a position as skirmishers on Brinkerhoff Ridge, a low rise which crosses the Hanover Road about 2.5 miles east of Gettysburg. According to Samito, the 9th Massachusetts was in open fields near the Deardorff Farm just to the south of the Hanover Road. In this spot, they were on the far-flung fringe of the Union right flank, temporarily shielding the army against any Confederate attempt to get around to the rear of the Union lines.[8]

Although Confederate skirmishers did press the position on July 2, it is not clear whether or not the 9th Massachusetts was at all engaged here. Picket duty in a location so far from the main army is a job better suited to cavalry, and it seems the 9th Massachusetts was meant to hold part of Brinkerhoff Ridge only long enough for Union cavalry to arrive. Unfortunately, the cavalry, as Colonel Guiney observed with frustration, was rather lackadaisical in doing so. He later later wrote to Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of the 20th Maine, “Both flanks [of the Ninth] were thus unconnected and exposed. Just then, Gregg’s cavalry bivoucked in my rear and I found myself protecting an inactive cavalry force large enough, and assuredly brave enough, to take care of its own front.”[9]

While the 9th Massachusetts was on Brinkerhoff Ridge, the rest of their brigade was hit hard by McLaws’s Confederates and took terrible casualties in the Wheatfield. Sweitzer regrouped what was left of his brigade near the John Weikert farm north of the Wheatfield Road. Summons came to the 9th Massachusetts in the evening to rejoin their brigade. When they were reunited, the spectacle of their shattered brigade was horrifying to the men of the 9th Massachusetts. Colonel Guiney wrote, “…We could scarcely be said to join the brigade, it seemed to me it would be more appropriate to say that we constituted the brigade. There were flags of regiments, a remnant of a splendid regiment around each.”[10]

A remnant of the stone wall on Big Round Top behind which the 9th Massachusetts fought.

A remnant of the stone wall on Big Round Top behind which the 9th Massachusetts fought.

Shortly after nightfall on July 2, elements of the V Corps were moved off to the left to occupy Big Round Top in expectation of another Confederate offensive in the morning. Sweitzer’s brigade was too badly cut up to be of much use and would remain at Weikert’s farm. And so the 9th Massachusetts was temporarily attached to Tilton’s brigade (which had also suffered near the Wheatfield but not quite so badly). It was at that time that the 9th Massachusetts took the position where their regimental monument is located on the north slope of Big Round Top. The men spent a good portion of the night piling up rocks until they had a formidable stone wall for cover.

On the third day of the battle, July 3, skirmishers from Hood’s division, mostly Texas regiments, attempted to move up the wooded slopes of Big Round Top, but not in force. The 9th Massachusetts and other units from Tilton’s brigade were able to repel them. The 9th was particularly fortunate in their stone wall and the fact that their position was shielded from artillery fire. As Macnamara described, “the enemy…would creep and crawl and stumble through the thickets and underbrush…until they appeared in sight, when the Ninth boys would open on them at a great advantage from behind their stone breastworks…The rapid fire was too much for the enemy’s skirmishers and they would get back from tree to tree and rock to rock until they were out of range…”[11]

Of the 470 men taken into battle, the 9th Massachusetts took only 15 casualties, including one killed in action. They remained in position behind their stone wall until the end of the battle.

Historians of the Civil War tend to rely heavily on regimental histories written in the decades after the war. They are often the most detailed sources on the actions of a given unit. But the History of the Ninth Regiment presents a cautionary tale. Not only are the regimental histories often highly subjective, they can sometimes be shockingly incorrect.

[ 1] Daniel G. Macnamara, The History of the Ninth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, (1899), p. 320.
[2] James L. Bowen, Massachusetts in the War, (1888), p. 189-193.
[3] Louise Imogen Guiney, “Patrick Robert Guiney,” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. (1910)
[4] Christian G. Samito, Commanding Boston’s Irish Ninth: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Patrick R. Guiney, (1998), p. xiv.
[5] Macnamara, p. 318.
[6] Macnamara, p. 318.
[7] ed. Christian Samito, History of the Ninth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry(2000), p. xxxv.
[8] Samito, Commanding Boston’s Irish Ninthp. 200.
[9] Samito, Commanding Boston’s Irish Ninthp. 201.
[10] Bradley M. Gottfried, Brigades of Gettysburg, (2002), p. 245.
[11] Macnamara, p. 320.

About Patrick Browne

I am a historian of the Civil War Era, author, and PhD candidate View all posts by Patrick Browne

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: